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Friend of the Court or Friend of the Cult?

by Ronald Enroth

from the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, page 39. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

In recent years there has been increased use of the legal practice of filing an amicus (or "friend of the court") brief by scholars, professional organizations, civil rights organizations, and religious organizations in connection with legal cases involving religious cults. Among the signatories to such briefs (amici) have been several evangelical bodies.

The rules of the court system do not permit an amicus brief to be filed for the purpose of "taking sides" in the case. Amici must demonstrate their own interest and view their participation as an aid to the court in resolving difficult questions of law that potentially affect them. The amicus briefs do not necessarily imply support for the views and practices of a party involved in the case, but nevertheless make legal arguments that are intended to benefit the court with a wider viewpoint. In short, amicus briefs are viewed legally as a means simply to (1) guide the court in the interpretation of the law, and (2) insure, if possible, that the legal outcome will not negatively impact the amicus.

Despite the assertion that amici do not take "sides" there is more than a little evidence that strong and often emotional feelings lurk just beneath the surface. The result is the emergence of two camps in the academic/professional world as well as the religious community. Scholars and other professionals who support such briefs have been referred to by critics as "cult apologists," while the signatories to these briefs describe their opposition as "professional 'anti-cult' proponents." Evangelicals can be found in both camps, but most (including the author) are probably identified with the "anti-cult" contingent.

The American Psychological Association, along with nearly two dozen individual scholars and behavioral scientists, filed an amicus brief in 1987 in behalf of the Unification Church in the California Supreme Court. The case (Molko v. Holy Spirit Association) involved the issue of "coercive persuasion" or "brainwashing" in connection with Moonie conversion practices. The APA and its co-amici argued that there was little scientific support for "brainwashing" theory. Both the National Council of Churches and the Christian Legal Society filed briefs in this same case.

The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the American Sociological Association became signatories in 1989 to the amicus curiae brief that was put before the U.S. Supreme Court when the Molko case advanced to that judicial level. The brief concluded that allegations of "brainwashing" constitute a "devastating infringement" of the petitioner's religious practices and threaten "the integrity of scientific research."

In a more recent case involving the Hare Krishna sect, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was an active participant (ISKCON v. George). Their brief expresses concern regarding the legal "persecution of unpopular religious minorities" resulting from "juries whipped up into a frenzy of hostility to religious bodies sued by disgruntled former church members." The "disgruntled" former member in this case is Robin George, a young woman who has become an evangelical Christian since leaving the cult.

One of the few evangelicals to question in print evangelical participation in such cases (specifically, one involving Sun Myung Moon and the Internal Revenue Service) was Eternity columnist Joseph Bayly. In his October 1984 column, Bayly expressed concern regarding the involvement of evangelicals as friends of the court in support of Moon's appeal of his conviction for criminal tax fraud. Bayly was criticized by both the NAE and the Christian Legal Society for his statements.

In his January 1985 column, Bayly once again raised his voice in opposition to evangelical support of Moon. He wrote: "To raise this false messiah's fraudulent action to the level of a constitutional issue is folly."

Arguing that we must not lose sight of the larger picture, Christian legal experts stress the need for such participation because of the principles involved. That may mean, they explain, that sometimes a cult might "win" in court, even if theologically we might want to see them lose.

It seems imprudent, however, for the Christian community to become associated with cults in their obvious attempts to achieve legitimation -- solely because we perceive a threat to our religious freedom. Should we allow the narrow legal issues in these cases to obscure our obligation to expose the works of darkness wherever they may be found?

The position I am advocating does not lack concern for religious liberty. There clearly are serious challenges to religious freedom in North America which call for appropriate Christian responses. But more selective involvement in legal cases is in order.

Evangelicals are divided over what constitutes a serious threat to religious freedom. However, few would question the need to defend our right to proclaim the gospel. Should cults have the same First Amendment rights that we enjoy? Of course. But those rights do not shield illegal conduct or fraud. And this principle should also apply equally -- to evangelicals as well as cultists.

Despite the good legal intentions of evangelical organizations in filing amicus briefs, the cults involved predictably manipulate these legal actions as an indicator of "support" for their particular cases. Is it appropriate for Christian organizations to expend valuable resources to invite that kind of distortion, especially in those situations where the threat to religious liberty appears to be minimal? Are we providing indirect "aid and comfort" to the enemies of the gospel?

These are complex issues about which good Christians may disagree. They raise important questions which transcend what sometimes appear to be narrow legal considerations. They remind us all that perhaps the greatest need in the church today is discernment.

About the Author

Dr. Ronald Enroth is professor of sociology at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California, and author of The Lure of the Cults and Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults.

End of document, CRJ0086A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"Friend of the Court or Friend of the Cult?"
release A, April 30, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.

Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute.

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